The unspoken theme of this year's Greater Hartford Festival of Jazz, which takes place in Bushnell Park from July 14 to 16, might be this: Go ahead and dance. You've earned it.
New Haven-based saxophonist Nelson Garcia (Friday, 7 p.m.), whose band plays slinky, spiritual groove-jazz with a huge pocket, opens the festival, followed by radiant New York pianist-singer Aziza Miller (Friday, 9 p.m.). As Linda Williams, Miller was Natalie Cole's musical director in the late 1970s (you might remember "La Costa"), and her current fans include Alicia Keys and Questlove.
Saturday is for all-day grooving: Dexter's Lab (3 p.m.), led by drummer Dexter Pettaway, Sr., who studied at Wesleyan, Manchester Community College and the University of Hartford; Bridgeport quartet the Sez Zion Jazz Band (5 p.m.); Fo/Mo/Deep (7 p.m.), from Columbus, Ohio; Groove Project (9 p.m.), a smooth-jazz supergroup of sorts, with NYC guitarist Matt Marshak; and New England funk-soul collective Decades By Dezyne (11:10 p.m.), with a brief interlude by dance crew Side Street (11 p.m.).
Hartford's Funky Dawgz Brass Band (3 p.m.) greets Sunday visitors with a New Orleans-inspired crowd walk-thru. Other performers include singer (and Hartford native) Toscha Comeaux with guitarist Rene Toledo (4 p.m.); saxophonist New Orleans nouveau-swing saxophonist Donald Harrison (6 p.m.); and drummer Gene Bozzi's Jazz & Strings tribute to Ella Fitzgerald (8 p.m.).
As always, there's a marketplace, a range of food and beverages (Ben and Jerry's, The Chicken Smells Good, Mazz's Kettle Corn, Silver Platter Mobile Café, Clover, Camilla's Latin Restaurant, The Sloppy Waffle, and much more) and entertainment for the kids (face painting, glitter tattoos, bounce houses, etc.).
"The real driving force is the love of community, the love of family," says festival president Charles Christie. "I've always been a park advocate. We're supposed to use our parks to take our minds off of the pressure."
In some ways, the 2017 festival feels scaled back. In 2016, its 25th anniversary year, organizers spent $75,000 on entertainment — a jump of $25,000 from 2015. Performers included South African guitarist Jonathan Butler with American saxophonist Gerald Albright, Grammy-nominated saxophonist Najee and drummer Carl Allen's tribute to Elvin Jones.
But the event got hit with a $55,000 fee for city services, an increase of $45,000 in a single year, according to Christie. Expenses, including insurance, were higher than expected. The festival ended with $53,000 of debt.
Of 2017's $326,000 budget, which covers everything (including last year's debt), $238,000 has already been promised.
"We are on course to meet the budget number," Christie says. "There are still some irons in the fire, including some grants. It's all in the next day or two, which could achieve the goal before you walk into the park. We can basically hit that number today."
The anticipated income on the grounds, Christie adds, is roughly $35,000-$40,000; some $8,000 to $12,000 of that is raised through "passing the hat." The total could be significantly higher if someone with deep pockets steps up.
Daily attendance ranges from 15,000 to 30,000. (Saturday is the heavy-traffic day.) Christie is also encouraged by stories of North Carolina and Georgia residents traveling north for the festival. As always, the event is all-volunteer.
"They come along for the ride and they love our city," says Christie. "We need more people to do that. That's where the money and the energy will come from. We're poised to get there."
THE GREATER HARTFORD FESTIVAL OF JAZZ takes place in Hartford's Bushnell Park from July 14 to 16. Admission is free. hartfordjazz.org